THE $3.3 MILLION awarded to a professional basketball player by a jury in Houston should send tremors through the world of sports. The size of the verdict was a message from the citizens on that jury that they have had enough of the mindless violence that has become so much a part of professional athletics. The view is not confined to one jury. People in the sports world would be wise to consider this action a judgment by the public on the kind of conduct that is unacceptable on the playing fields -- where it actually does matter "how you play the game."
The jury ruled that the Los Angeles Lakers must pay Rudy Tomjanovich $1.8 million for the actual damages he suffered when his face was smashed in by Laker player Kermit Washington. The figure may or may not be high, given the injuries Washington inflicted with one punch -- a fractured skull, jaw and nose, other facial injuries and leakage of spinal fluid.
But the injury then went on to add an additional $1.5 million in punitive damages against the owners of the Lakers for failing properly to train and supervise their player and for keeping him on the team after they had become aware he had a tendency to violence. It is rare for a jury to award more money than a victim sought, but this one added 50 percent to the $1 million in punitive damages Mr. Tomjanovich requested. That is some measure of its reaction to the evidence it heard and saw, a reaction it shared with many sports fans who saw movies of the 1977 incident.
Mr. Tomjanovich was not the first, and will not be the last professional athlete injured deliberately by an opponent. It happens all the time in football and hockey and occasionally in other sports. When the rewards for winning are so high, the temptation to eliminate an opposing player from the game one way or another always exists. Violence, once so introduced into a sport, soon becomes a routine part of the way the game is played. Just as quickly, and with disastrous results, it becomes a part of the way the game is also played by younger athletes, who mimic the professionals.
While some of those involved in sports know changes must be made -- basketball commissioner Larry O'Brien has been campaigning against violence -- others have not yet gotten the message. This jury's verdict warns the people who own the teams that they have a responsibility to clean up their games. It may take stern action from them, or another lawsuit (since only the Lakers, not Mr. Washington, must pay the $3.3 million), for that warning to reach the players as well.